Democrat Mike Bare is the first new face to represent the 80th Assembly District — which includes Middleton, Verona, Oregon and Mount Horeb — in 20 years.
By Peter Cameron, THE BADGER PROJECT
In a gerrymandered district designed to be packed with left-leaning voters, lobbyist and Dane County board supervisor Mike Bare easily defeated his Republican opponent in the 2022 election with a whopping 70% of the 43,000 votes cast. Bare will replace the retiring state Rep. Sondy Pope (D-Mount Horeb), who represented the 80th Assembly District for the past two decades. The district includes Mount Horeb, Verona, Belleville, New Glarus, and parts of Middleton.
A state representative makes a salary of about $57,000 per year.
Bare, 39, lives in Verona with his wife and two young sons.
THE NEW ASSEMBLY REPRESENTATIVE
A former aide to progressive U.S. Senator Russ Feingold, Bare easily won a 5-candidate primary election with nearly 48% of the vote, then crushed Republican Jacob Luginbuhl, a small business owner from Verona, in the general election.
“It didn’t feel easy,” Bare told The Badger Project in an interview. “I knocked on 11,245 doors. I worked my butt off to meet voters where they were at, to hear their stories and share my vision or a better state. It was truly a grassroots, door-to-door effort.”
The state representative-elect enters a chamber in which his party has a weak minority of seats. Though any bill needs the signature of Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, to become law, giving the minority party some leverage.
In some early conversations with his Republican counterparts, Bare said that increased funding for public education and local governments might be areas of agreement.
“Whether there can be bipartisan progress,” he said, “we’ll see.”
Bare served the last 12 years as a lobbyist for Community Advocates Public Policy Institute, an organization which aims to reduce and prevent poverty in Wisconsin. One of the successes he was part of, he said, consists of a policy change connecting soon-to-be-released prisoners by phone to the Department of Health Services to enroll in BadgerCare, the state’s health care program for low-income people.
His term on the Dane County Board of Supervisors ends in April 2024. Bare said he intends to serve in both offices, “but not indefinitely.”
“I don’t yet have a firm timeline for leaving the county board,” he said.
Running his first race for state legislature, Bare won a larger share of the vote in 2022 than Pope did the last time the seat was up for reelection in 2020, when she won about 65%. This is the first election in the district since Republicans were able to redraw the political districts in 2021 and refresh their advantage.
After the recent redistricting, Mount Horeb now sits on the border of the 80th Assembly District, as Blue Mounds and Barneveld were scooped out and plopped into the neighboring district to the west.
The 80th Assembly District runs deep blue, thanks largely to the inclusion of Mount Horeb, which “has long a been a strong Democratic stronghold,” said Ryan Weichelt, a UW-Eau Claire geography professor who focuses on political geography.
“Even before 2000, and except for some of the elections for (4-term Republican Gov.) Tommy Thompson (who won by huge margins across the state), it has generally backed Democrats by 60% or more, becoming stronger Democratic after 2010,” he noted.
But the district is also the victim of political gerrymandering, i.e. when one party draws the political boundaries to give itself maximum advantage.
When gerrymandering, the party in power “packs” as many voters of the opposing party as they can into a few districts. The western part of deep blue Dane County, in which Mount Horeb sits, is a “prime example of Democratic packing,” Weichelt said.
The effect of gerrymandering results in the party that draws the lines remaining in power even in election years when the political tides are against them, experts like Weichelt say. This has happened in Wisconsin repeatedly since Republicans first drew the lines in 2011. Another effect is most districts are not competitive, experts like Weichelt say. Either the Republican or the Democrat wins easily.
But change could be coming. The election for a seat on the Wisconsin Supreme Court in April could result in a new majority on the court that might be open to ending political gerrymandering in the state, replaced with nonpartisan political districts, experts say. Meaning it’s possible the state’s political districts could change again in the coming years.
The population of one state Assembly district is about 60,000 people.
Campaign finance law caps donations to candidates for state Assembly at $1,000 per election cycle. Republicans doubled the limits to all candidates for state office when they took full control of state government in the last decade.
For the 2022 election, Bare raised about $76,000, mostly from individuals rather than political action committees, according to campaign finance filings. He also donated $10,000 to his own campaign, and the Wisconsin Democratic Party gave him about $6,500. As they do for most Democratic candidates, organized labor groups financially supported Bare through their political action committees. He received the maximum $1,000 donation from unions representing service employees, teachers and bureaucrats.
Luginbuhl only raised about $10,000, half of which came from the Republican Party, according to campaign finance filings. He kicked in another $2,300 from his own pocket.
Campaign finance limits do not apply to candidates donating to themselves, per state law.
Former state Rep. Brett Davis, a Republican who held the district from 2005-2010, owns the record for most funds raised while running for the 80th Assembly seat, according to campaign finance data. He raised nearly $190,000 for his re-election campaign in 2008. He also holds the second and third spots, at about $120,000 and $107,000, respectively. Those figures are particularly notable because they occurred before Republicans doubled the donation limits to candidates.
The district became much less competitive after Republicans captured full control of state government in 2010 and were able to draw the districts in 2011 without outside interference.
Top donors to Bare in 2022 election cycle
This story was funded by a grant from the Mount Horeb Community Foundation.
The Badger Project is a nonpartisan, citizen-supported journalism nonprofit in Wisconsin.